It wasn’t so long ago that a desktop computer was just a beige box with another, heavier, beige box sitting next to it or maybe perched on top. They’re a bit more visually exciting these days, with even mass produced PCs now shipping with RGB lighting and clear side panels. But even so, few could really look at a modern desktop computer and call it objectively beautiful.
A few of the designs are relatively conservative, and not entirely unlike some of the old “dumb terminals” of the 1970s. With a Raspberry Pi 4 and a tablet-sized screen, these diminutive terminals would be perfectly usable for light desktop work or some retro gaming.
It will come as no surprise to the average Hackaday reader that what we’re looking at here is a pocket-sized NES emulator, but until [stacksmashing] cracked his open, nobody was quite sure what kind of hardware is was running on. Thankfully there wasn’t an epoxy blob in sight, and all of the chips were easily identifiable. Armed with the knowledge that the Game & Watch is running on a STM32H7B0 microcontroller with a nearby SPI flash chip holding the firmware, it was just a matter of figuring out how the software worked.
But he was able to dump the RAM through SWD, which allowed him to identify where the Super Mario Bros NES ROM lived. By connecting the SPI flash chip to a reader and comparing its contents with what the system had in RAM, [stacksmashing] was able to figure out the XOR encryption scheme and come up with a tool that will allow you to insert a modified ROM into an image that can be successfully flashed to the chip.
So does that mean you can put whatever NES ROM you want on the new Game & Watch? Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet. The emulator running on the device has a few odd quirks, and it will take some additional coaxing before its ready to run Contra. But we’ve seen enough of these devices get hacked to know that it’s just a matter of time.
[Mitsuru Yamada] states that one of the goals for this 6502 computer build was to make it strong enough to survive real-world usage. In that regard alone we’d call this a success; the die-cast aluminum enclosures used a little blast from the past and lend a nice retro industrial look to the project. The main chassis of the computer fairly bristles with LEDs and chunky toggle switches for setting the data and address busses. The interior is no less tidy, with the 6502 microprocessor — date code from 1995 — and associated support chips neatly arranged on perf board. The construction method is wire wrapping, in keeping with the old-school look and feel. Even the hand-drawn schematic is a work of art — shades of [Forrest Mims].
As for programming, this machine is as low-level as it gets. Nothing but 6502 machine language here, entered manually with the toggle switches, or via an externally programmed ROM. The machine can only address 1k of memory, a limit which the code to support the RPN calculator add-on [Yamada] also built brushes up against, at 992 bytes. The calculator keypad has a 20-key matrix pad and an eight-digit dot-matrix LED display, and can do the four basic operations on fixed-point binary-coded decimal inputs. The brief video below shows the calculator in action.
We love the look of this build and we’re eager to see more like it. We’ve seen a ton of 6502 builds from discrete chips lately, and while we love those too, it’s nice to see one of the big old DIPs put back in action for a change.
If you need an oscilloscope, function generator, or other piece of kit for your electronics workbench, there are plenty of modern options. Dropping $4,000 for a modern oscilloscope is nice if you have the money, but if you’d rather put it to better use there are great options that don’t cost a fortune. There are some addons that can turn a smartphone into an oscilloscope but one of the best values out there are older pieces of equipment from the 80s that still work great. You can even upgrade them with some more modern features too, like [NFM] did with this vintage function generator.
This function generator is an HP3325A and it is several decades old, so some work was needed just to restore it to original working condition. The cooling fan and capacitors all needed to be replaced, as well as a few other odds and ends. From there [NFM] set about adding one of the two optional upgrades available for this device, the high voltage output. This allows the function generator to output 40 volts peak-to-peak at 40 milliamps. While he did have an original version from HP, he actually had a self-made design produced that matches the function of the original.
Even if you don’t have this specific function generator, this guide goes into great details about the functioning of older equipment like this. Most of the parts are replaceable and upgrades aren’t completely out of the question like some modern equipment, and with the right care and maintenance these pieces of equipment could last for decades longer.
The project is called FujiNet and it uses the lightweight protocol of SIO to add a number of modern features to the 8-bit machine. It’s based on an ESP32, and the chip performs the functions of a network adapter by bridging WiFi and Bluetooth to the Atari. It does this by simulating drives that would have potentially been used on the Atari in its time, such as a floppy disk drive, an RS232 interface, or a modem, and translating them to the modern wireless communication protocols. It even has the ability to emulate a printer by taking the output of the print job from the Atari and converting it to PDF within the device itself.
Not only does this bring a lot of functionality to the Atari, which you may be able to use to view sites like retro.hackaday.com, but the FujiNet is housed in a period-appropriate 3D-printed case that matches the look and feel of the original Atari. If you need a more generic solution for your retrocomputing networking adventures that isn’t limited to SIO, we recommend grabbing a Raspberry Pi to handle that.
Building a retro computer, or even restoring one, is a great way to understand a lot of the fundamentals of computing. That can take a long time and a lot of energy, though. Luckily, there is a Twitter bot out there that can let you experience an old 8-bit Atari without even needing to spin up an emulator. Just tweet your program to the bot, and it outputs the result.
The bot was built by [Kay Savetz] and accepts programs in five programming languages: Atari BASIC, Turbo-Basic XL, Atari Logo, Atari PILOT, and Atari Assembler/Editor, which was a low-level assembly-type language available on these machines. The bot itself runs on a Raspberry Pi with the Atari 800 emulator, rather than original hardware, presumably because it’s much simpler to get a working network connection on a Pi than on a computer from the 80s. The Pi runs a python script that polls Twitter every two minutes and then hands the code off to the emulator.
[Kay]’s work isn’t limited to just Ataris, though. There’s also an Apple II BASIC bot for all the Apple fans out there that responds to programs written in AppleSoft BASIC. While building your own retro system or emulating one on other hardware is a great exercise, it’s also great that there are tools like these that allow manipulation of retro computers without having to do any of the dirty work ourselves.
These days, everything’s got a clock in it, and a good proportion of those clocks are automatically syncronized to high-accuracy Internet time servers. Back in the past, things weren’t so easy. Often, institutions that required accurate time would use a single highly-accurate primary clock to drive a series of secondary clocks around a facility. Without the primary clock, the secondary clock has no signal to drive it. [Oleksii Samorukov] had just such a clock, and whipped up a controller to stand in for timekeeping duty.
The secondary clock in question is a Pragotron PJ 27, which requires regular 12V signals of alternating polarity in order to keep time. To handle this job, [Oleksii] decided to use an ESP32 in combination with an L298N motor controller. The L298N is an H-bridge driver chip, allowing it to easily supply the 12V signals in alternating polarities where required. To ensure the system keeps accurate time, the ESP32 regularly queries an NTP time server over WiFi.
It’s a tidy build, and one that brings this attractive 1960s timepiece into the modern era. We’d love to have such a stylish, well-built clock in our own home, too. Of course, if you want really accurate time, building a GPS clock is a great option, too!